Brooklyn Catholic schools to go mask-optional if mandate struck down

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Saint Saviour Roman Catholic Church in Park Slope, which runs a K-8 academy and a high school
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Catholic school students in Brooklyn may no longer need to wear a face mask if a judge ultimately strikes down the state’s mask mandate, according to the Brooklyn Diocese.

“It is our fervent hope for the Catholic Academies and Parish Schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn that the mask mandate will be eliminated which would allow our schools to make mask-wearing optional based upon local circumstances,” the Diocese, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, said in a letter to parents on Tuesday, signed by Vicar Msgr. David Cassato, Superintendent Thomas Chadzutko, and Deputy Superintendent Joan McMaster. 

The announcement comes after a series of legal happenings that threw Gov. Kathy Hochul’s statewide mandate into flux, beginning when a Nassau County judge on Monday struck down the requirement for individuals to wear a face covering inside any establishment that does not require proof of vaccination. 

The Long Island jurist called the mandate “unlawful” because the State Legislature last year rescinded pandemic-era emergency executive powers that had been granted to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo — and argued therefore that Hochul needed permission from the legislature to implement such a measure. 

The state immediately moved to appeal the decision, and on Tuesday, an Appeals Court judge in Albany allowed the mandate to remain in place, pending the state’s formal appeal.

If that appeal is unsuccessful, and the mandate is rescinded, the Brooklyn Diocese will allow individual Catholic schools to decide whether to force students to wear a mask. 

“If the appellate courts strike down the mask mandate, our schools and academies will IMMEDIATELY be able to make masks optional,” the Diocese’s letter said. “However, until the appellate courts render a final decision, our Catholic Academies and Parish Schools must follow the State mask mandate.”

Reyna, a sophomore at St. Saviour High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Park Slope, said that she would feel uncomfortable coming into school if it goes mask-optional, and worries it could lead to another shutdown.

“Yikes,” said Reyna, who noted she would continue wearing a mask, even if it’s not required. “I think it’s wrong. We have to wear masks if we don’t want to close down and shut everything down.”

The battle over masks comes as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to rage across the Big Apple, with 7,873 new cases per day over the past week, according to Department of Health Data. Cases have been on a downward trend since Omicron’s peak in early January, however.

The CDC and the state and city health departments all still note that wearing a mask is one of the most important actions one can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But Monsignor Cassato, who as Vicar is the spiritual leader of Catholic education in Brooklyn and Queens (the superintendent runs day-to-day operations), said the safeness of Catholic schools, and schools in general, during the pandemic led the Diocese to conclude that the continued imposition of masks was more harmful to kids than helpful.

“If a kid is sick, stay home. If things are going well and everything is going well, come to school, take the temperatures when they come in. If you have a cold, stay home,” Monsignor Cassato told Brooklyn Paper by phone. “If people follow caution, I think the mask can become optional, just kind of leave it up to your own discretion. And I think that to me is much better than saying ‘everybody has to wear a mask.'”

“You go to a restaurant, you take the mask off to eat,” he continued. “And people are in restaurants, if you’re vaccinated, if you keep your cautions, etc, I think we’ve got to look at it.”

Cassato noted that cases are on the decline in the city, and argued that it’s time to start moving on from the pandemic for the sake of the students, parents, and teachers. If the mandate is struck down, he expects the movement away from masking to be gradual rather than an immediate reaction.

“These poor kids have been masked, and it’s hard for these young kids to keep it,” Cassato said. “If we can say, let’s move on, we’re moving. We’re getting better, the numbers are down. And is it gonna be mandated after next week? We’ll take a gradual step into it, we’re not just gonna say ‘tomorrow, don’t wear your mask.'”

The Diocese’s decision to abandon its mask mandate puts the borough’s Catholic schools at odds with the city’s public schools: the city’s Department of Education says that public schools in the Five Boroughs will remain under a mask mandate, no matter the outcome of the legal battle (as the statewide case has no effect of the city agency’s legal authority to implement such a mandate). 

Masking would also be optional in Catholic schools located in the Archdiocese of New York, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, and several upstate counties. 

The Brooklyn Diocese, which also covers Queens, includes 85 Catholic elementary schools, academies, and high schools, according to its website, including 32 in Kings County.

At St. Saviour’s affiliated elementary and middle school, St. Saviour Catholic Academy, located a block away from the high school, some parents said that they’re confident school leadership would keep its mask mandate in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that the student body will continue to mask up.

“Simply put, I think that this is an exceptional school,” said Mary Ann Harris, the mother of an eighth-grader at St. Saviour. “I know that most of the children now, anyway, don’t want to take off their masks. They’re inculcated now!”

Harris said that she would still feel comfortable sending her kid to school if it goes mask-optional, even though she believes the mandate should stay in effect, because she trusts the administration and student body to make informed choices.

Other parents, however, say if masks become optional, they’ll keep their kids home.

“I won’t send my kids to school,” said Ben, the father of a fifth-grader at St. Saviour. “Masks are important to protect the kids, so they should be mandatory.”

Ben said that he would be evaluating his options for an alternative for his children. Cassato said that the Diocese has a remote learning option for students who are sick and cannot come into school, but did not answer on whether that option was available to students uncomfortable attending a mask-optional school. “I must be honest, I think they all want to come back without masks,” Cassato said. “Most kids do.”

And Kamiyah Parchment, a senior at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Fort Greene, is, unlike Harris, not at all confident that her fellow pupils will keep their masks on if it’s not required.

“I think the masks are the only things that are really keeping us safe right now,” Parchment said. “I think a lot of people will probably take them off, though.”

Schools under the Diocesian umbrella will not be required to make masking optional, but rather will just have a choice to do so. Brooklyn Diocese spokesperson John Quaglione told Brooklyn Paper that, if the mandate is struck down, the Board of Directors at each school will be provided the Diocese’s recommendation and any additional guidelines the Diocese draws up, based on city and state health protocols.

Schools will have to consult with the Diocese before coming to any final decision, and once one is made, it will be up to the school to implement it — though he said that schools have closely followed the advice of the Diocese throughout the pandemic.

“Throughout the entire pandemic, our schools and academies have been fully in sync with the policy recommendations of the Diocese,” Quaglione said.

And not everyone getting a Catholic education in Brooklyn sees a mask-optional policy as a bad thing. 

Richard, the father of a 4-year-old at St. Saviour, says the mask will come straight off of his kid’s face if it’s no longer required, arguing that mask requirements have been “abusive” and detrimental to his youngster’s early childhood development.

“Why does my 4-year-old have to be in a mask for two years? It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Richard said. “Half his life has been in a mask.”

Not every religious school will be going the mask-optional route in Brooklyn. A network of seven Islamic schools with about 2,000 students — which are independently run but have a central steering committee — will follow the city DOE’s guidance on masks, meaning the mandate will stay in effect there, according to Zak Khan, the principal at Peace Children’s Academy in Kensington.

“We work with the New York City Department of Education,” Khan said. “So whatever guidelines they follow, then we have to follow those guidelines.”

Brooklyn Paper reached out to Chabad, which operates numerous Jewish yeshivas in Brooklyn, asking if they are also moving to mask-optional instruction, but has not received a response.

This story has been updated to provide greater clarity on how schools would make the decision to go mask-free.